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About 24 hours after University of Iowa students staged the first protest against President Sally Mason regarding her comments on sexual assault, one of her staff members sent an email to the Iowa Board of Regents to provide “some background” on the topic.
“Students are becoming more engaged in the issue and speaking out publicly,” Joseph Brennan, vice president of UI communications and marketing, wrote in a Feb. 24 email to Sheila Doyle Koppin, communication and transparency officer for the Board of Regents.
“Yesterday and today, there were two peaceful demonstrations calling on the university and all campus members to engage in the issue,” Brennan wrote.
That email and others were made public Thursday through an open-records request from The Gazette after regents last week criticized Mason's communication with them on recent events related to sexual violence on campus. During a special meeting last Friday, Feb. 28, regents asked Mason to explain comments she made to a student newspaper on the topic, and they accused her of failing to adequately communicate with the board about the fallout.
“By failing to respond to us, we were forced to come to you,” Regent President Pro-tem Katie Mulholland told Mason on Friday. “And this board has gone through communication challenges with you in the past.”
Mulholland said the regents and Mason agreed long ago that communication was an area in which she needed to improve. During the special meeting, regents briefly addressed Mason's “inappropriate” comments – Mason told the Daily Iowan student newspaper that ending sexual violence on campus was “probably not a realistic goal, just given human nature.”
But they said the larger issue was “keeping the board apprised of such issues.”
“Our question is this: Should something as public as the events of last week warrant a board consultation and discussion?” Mulholland said.
Documents made public Thursday indicated that members of Mason's staff reached out to the board office and regent staff members on the issue beginning the afternoon of Feb. 24 – one day after the first protest and just hours after the second. The documents did not include any direct communication between Mason and individual board members.
In response to interview requests from The Gazette on Thursday, Regent President Bruce Rastetter responded with a statement.
“The Board of Regents has the responsibility to ensure the safety of the campuses at the highest level," he said in the statement. "The Board appreciates that President Mason took responsibility and we believe our conversations in both the public and private sessions were productive. We will continue our discussion internally, and we will have no further comment.”
Mason was unavailable to comment.
The documents show that emails were exchanged between the Board of Regents office and Mason's staff in the days following the initial protests – as the issue gained momentum and publicity.
Following Brennan's Feb. 24 email to Board of Regents staff, Koppin – with the regents' office – replied to UI officials with a list of suggested “talking points” on the topic. Among those points, Koppin suggested UI officials stress that “student safety is a top priority” and that “universities have the most up-to-date systems and policies in place that ensure a quick response to reports of sexual misconduct.”
In the ensuing email exchanges, UI officials provided links to media reports, Mason's statements, and news releases on the topic. UI staff also provided information on follow-up meetings on campus.
The emails show that in early February – before the issue gained widespread publicity – UI officials sent information to regents on incidents of sexual assault and “timely warning” emails sent to the campus community.
One email from Brennan on Feb. 7 informed regents that a story on sexual assault at the UI was scheduled to appear in a local newspaper. Brennan, in that email, provided regents with background on the issue.
“Our police have issued seven ‘timely warning' notices to our campus about acquaintance rapes in the last year,” Brennan wrote. “This number is up sharply from the past – NOT because there are more rapes happening, but because we have chosen purposely to use this means of communicating to the student body to call attention to the problem.”
Last week, through protests and the creation of a website, UI students made several demands of administrators on the issue of sexual assault. They asked Mason to apologize for comments she made to the student newspaper, enact a “zero tolerance” policy against sexual violence, clean up language in the UI's warning emails and increase resources and education around the issue.
Mason, during her Feb. 28 meeting with the regents, laid out a six-point plan to combat sexual violence on campus. UI officials this week said strides already have been made in responding to student concerns.
Responding to regents' ongoing concerns about her communication, Mason during that Feb. 28 meeting said she had hoped to meet once a month with Regent President Rastetter and President Pro-tem Mulholland, but those meetings had been repeatedly cancelled.
Details from Mason's calendar made public Thursday show that she had meetings scheduled with Rastetter and Mulholland on Dec. 10, Jan. 30 and Feb. 28. The January and February meetings were cancelled because Rastetter was unavailable, according to emails to Mason's staff.
“Bruce will now be out of the country on the 30th and unfortunately will be unable to attend the scheduled meeting with Sally,” according to a Jan. 16 email to Mason's staff. On Feb. 20 another email said, “Bruce has been asked to speak on IPTV Iowa Press … so Bruce will not be able to make this meeting.”
Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said she thinks those meetings need to be a priority for everyone involved.
“Communication is critical and communication goes two ways,” Mascher said. “Sally has been working on those issues and has been setting those meetings up, but she can't control it if they cancel … . They have to maintain their commitment to meeting with Sally.”
Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, whose district, like Mascher's, includes the UI, said the regents understandably don't want to be surprised by issues and events happening on the university campuses. And, he said, different board members might have different expectations when it comes to communication.
“They need to be clear about what they're expectations are,” Bolkcom said, adding that he doesn't know what the regents' communication channels are like with the other universities. “But I hope the board is interacting in an equal way with all the campuses.”